Who knew that Belgians were so into bluegrass music? Or that Belgian filmmakers were into the same kind of emotional manipulation practiced by crass Hollywood tearjerkers? Despite its capricious chronology, with its ping-pong flashbacks and flash-forwards, “The Broken Circle Breakdown” — adapted by Felix van Groeningen and Carl Joos from the play by Johan Heldenbergh (who also costars in the movie) and Mieke Dobbels — could be mistaken for a Lifetime TV tearjerker.
OK, maybe a TV movie wouldn’t venture into the same regions of grief, despair, and intimacy, or that gray area between faith and rationality. Also to its credit, the film’s effective use of live musical performances to enhance mood and underscore emotion evokes such superior films as Matthew Porterfield’s “I Used to Be Darker” and the upcoming “Inside Llewyn Davis” (opens in Boston Dec. 20) from the Coen brothers. Too bad it wastes its potential for honest emotion with schmaltz, cheap shots, and clichés.
Like the meet-cute between Didier (Heldenbergh), banjo player for a spirited Flemish hillbilly band, and Elise (Veerle Baetens), hippie-ish tattoo artist — which, due to the addled flashback structure, happens an hour into the film. Didier scoffs at Elise’s liking for Elvis and tells her that Bill Monroe is the man. Elise, whose array of tattoos resembles those of Rod Steiger in “The Illustrated Man” (1969), chides Didier’s aversion to ink. Doesn’t he think his experiences are worth memorializing on his own hide? She herself has inscribed the names of several boyfriends all over her anatomy, effacing them when the inevitable breakup happens, making her skin a palimpsest of broken romances.
At this point, alarm bells should be sounding in Didier’s head, but the film has already indulged in several montages depicting the couple’s march from whimsical lovemaking to unexpected pregnancy to happy parenting of a delightful baby daughter to disease-of-the-week melodrama. Along the way, Elise has joined the band, and her sweet soprano adds an aching resonance to their performances. But despite the music, and no matter how the film’s editors slice it, the attempt to get a rise out of the audience by way of the endangered child device verges on emotional pornography.
This hot-button scenario also devolves at times into a noisy debate about faith vs. science. Didier is an atheist who demonstrates all the intolerance and closed-mindedness that he ascribes to the fundamentalists he decries. When his daughter Maybelle (as in Maybelle Carter) weeps for a dead bird, Didier crushes her hopes for an animal afterlife and suggests she toss the carcass in the trash. After watching George Bush on the news explaining his reasons for vetoing a bill financing stem cell research, Didier ruins a touching performance of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” with a long-winded diatribe against just about every excess associated with religion. Nor is he tolerant of any of Elise’s tentative gestures of faith, such as her attachment to a crucifix passed down through generations of her family. But, though they depict Didier as irrationally rational, the filmmakers seem to agree with him in principle, if not in method.
Histrionics aside, this conflict of philosophies comes off as more polemical than dramatic. Such profound questions about the limits of love, faith, and reason in the face of tragedy deserve a more cinematic expression, one worthy of the music the film celebrates.